The Consumer Financial Protection Bureau (CFPB) reposted one of its earliest blog postings today to help the victims of Hurricane Sandy avoid the types of crimes that invariably follow any big disaster.  The Bureau said consumers should be watchful as they start the clean-up and repairs and be aware that some crooks live for the opportunities a disaster presents.  Homeowners can be victimized by shoddy workmanship or by persons using the access a disaster presents to set victims up for larger scams.

Cleanup from a disaster can be expensive and unfortunately many families don't have a ready source of emergency funds and the need to borrow many in a hurry can make storm victims easy targets for financing schemes. For examine, in the "home improvement loan scam" a contractor comes to the homeowner and proposes repairs at an attractive rate and offers to arrange the financing.  Even where the homeowner is reluctant he can pressured by threats to leave the work undone unless he signs a bewildering number of papers and forms which only later does he realize have obligated him to a home equity loan with high interest and points and with his house as the collateral.  Then the work is done poorly or may not even be completed.  

CFPB offered homeowners some common warning signs that should alert them to potential scams.  

  • The contractor demands full payment up front or in cash only.
  • The contractor has no physical address or refuses to show ID.
  • You have to disclose personal financial information (perhaps to "speed up payment") to start the repair or lending process.
  • If you have to borrow to pay for the repairs, the contractor steers you toward a particular lender or tries to act as an intermediary between you and a lender.
  • You are asked to sign something without enough time to review it.

When you are planning your clean-up and repairs CFPB advisers homeowners to take the following precautions:

  • Carefully question strangers offer to do work without being asked.  
  • Never give any personal financial information, such as an insurance number or Social Security Number.
  • Read and be sure you understand every document before signing it and ask questions about anything you do not understand.  
  • Do your own research before borrowing any money to pay for repairs.
  • Get a loan quote from someone who is not recommended by your contractor and compare their amounts, repayment schedules, and rates. If they differ significantly, ask both parties why.

Even persons far removed from Sandy's destruction can be targeted by crooks with phony charities or investment schemes.  The CFPB's blog post has other tips and resources to help consumers avoid these disaster-related problems.